We Are Not Alone

Most of the time it is not obvious from a person’s appearance that they are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I think the invisible nature of the disease is probably one of the main reasons that people who have RA often feel so alone. Personally I sometimes feel like the only person on the planet who is struggling to make a life for myself while dealing with RA, especially on my bad days. When I am really feeling down, sometimes it helps me to think about the people throughout history who lived with RA and still went on to do amazing things. There are probably even some people you have heard of – though you may not have known they lived with RA!

RA is a disease that has been around for a very, very long time. A very similar condition was described in an Egyptian medical record called the Ebers Papyrus in around 1,500 B.C. and there is even some evidence of RA found in Egyptian mummies. However, probably the first well-documented case of RA in history belonged to the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Born in 1941, Renoir likely developed RA at about age 50. Without the medical treatments available to us today, RA left Renoir bound to a wheelchair and caused severe deformities in his hands. But while his hand pain caused him to change his painting technique, he never stopped painting. In fact, you can find rare footage of Renoir painting with his crippled hands near the end of his life by searching on YouTube.

Another famous person thought to have had RA was Lucille Ball, best known for playing Lucy in the 1950s television show “I Love Lucy.” She first developed symptoms, including severe leg pain, while she was 17 years old and working as a model. Rumor has it that doctors told Ball she had RA, and she spent the next three years convalescing with her parents before returning to pursue acting. There is some controversy concerning whether or not Ball actually had RA, especially because she never developed any joint deformities. But, either way, knowing that she dealt with physical pain but was still able to be such an amazing physical comedian still gives me hope.

Although Renoir and Ball are perhaps the most famous historical figures thought to have had RA, there are others who have also contributed greatly to society. Dorothy Hodgkin was a British scientist who developed severe RA shortly after graduating from Oxford in 1932. Although RA crippled her hands and feet, she didn’t let it stop her from her scientific discoveries. She developed the use of X-ray crystallography to identify the three-dimensional structure of important biological molecules, including penicillin and insulin, and won the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry for describing the structure of vitamin B12.

South African Dr. Christiaan Barnard was diagnosed with RA in 1956. Although the arthritis in his hands eventually forced him to retire from the surgical part of his career, it was not before performing the first ever human-to-human heart transplant in 1967. Although his patient lived only 18 days following the surgery, Dr. Barnard’s skill marked the birth of a procedure that is used today to save thousands of lives every year.

Rosalind Russell, best known for playing Auntie Mame on Broadway and in the film, was diagnosed with severe RA in 1969. Despite living with RA, she went on to become a Tony and Golden Globe award winner and Oscar nominee. She was very open about her struggle with arthritis and actually served on a national commission to promote research. After her death, the United States Congress established the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis at the University of California at San Francisco to honor her efforts to promote research and raise awareness.

James Coburn was a classic Hollywood macho man who starred in a string of Westerns and spy movies in the 1960s and 1970s. He was forced to temporarily retire from acting when he was diagnosed with severe RA in 1979 at the age of 51. However, he was eventually able to bounce back from his disease and won an Oscar in 1998.

A two-time Golden Globe winner and another Oscar nominee, Kathleen Turner was diagnosed with RA in 1992 at the age of 38. Although modern medications have allowed her to continue with her acting career, she is outspoken about having RA in the hopes of helping others. She spearheaded an RA awareness campaign in 2002 and shares her personal struggles with RA in her 2008 memoir “Send Yourself Roses.”

Seamus Mullen is an award-winning chef who was diagnosed with RA in 2007. One of the three finalists on the popular Food Network TV series “The Next Iron Chef” in 2009, Mullen flared so badly during shooting that he often needed to be in a wheelchair between scenes. Since then he has become actively involved with the Arthritis Foundation, speaking out to promote awareness. He has also written a cookbook called “Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better,” describing the use of natural anti-inflammatory foods in Mediterranean cooking.

These historical figures and present-day celebrities have pursued their passions despite living with RA. They have given the world paintings, laughter, scientific discoveries, life-saving medical procedures, plays, films, books, and delicious food. Many have also spoken out about their experiences with RA to help raise awareness and research dollars. And I don’t know about you, but knowing all that they have accomplished gives me hope and makes me feel less alone, even on my worst days.

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